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Back in February, I discussed Donald Trump’s speech at the National Prayer Breakfast in which he promised to “destroy” the Johnson Amendment, aka the legislation that says tax-exempt organizations can’t engage in political lobbying, and that includes, obviously, churches. The Johnson Amendment has been roundly ignored by the most brazen and asinine church leaders with absolutely no punishment, but destroying it would be another brick taken out of the wall separating church and state.
Well last week, Trump followed through with his threat — sort of. Like most of the things Trump promised to do while campaigning (both before and after being elected, since the campaigning never stopped), he can’t actually just sign away an amendment without Congressional or court approval. But hey, that won’t stop Trump from trying. And so, on the same day that the House voted to take away health insurance from millions of Americans, Trump proudly scrawled his name on an executive order that asks the Treasury Department to refrain from punishing any church that engages in political activity.
First of all, he’s asking the Treasury to do basically the thing they have always done. In the entire history of the Johnson Amendment, only one church has ever been punished by the IRS, and it was because they took out a full-page attack ad against Bill Clinton. They may as well have placed an ad saying “we’re breaking the law, please punish us as you see fit.”
Second of all, he can’t do that. Again, that’s for Congress and the Courts to decide. So the executive order is meaningless. You can tell based on the fact that the Religious Right is pissed off that it didn’t give them the right to discriminate against women and gay people like Trump originally wanted, and even the ACLU doesn’t think it’s worth suing over yet.
That said, it is an obvious violation of separation of church and state. As I pointed out in my last video on the subject, the Johnson Amendment doesn’t just apply to churches — it applies to all tax-exempt non-profits. But Trump’s executive order only calls for a lack of enforcement relating to religious institutions, which gives them benefits not afforded to secular charities. That’s why I am glad that the Freedom from Religion Foundation is suing over the order. It may be purely symbolic, but symbols mean something. Suing in response is another important symbol and it’s one that says we’re watching what Trump is doing, and we’re not going to give him an inch.
If you’re already a card-carrying ACLU member, consider joining the Freedom from Religion Foundation, too, to continue resisting the Religious Right using Trump as their dancing puppet.